Climate change is already impacting the lives of many. In this blog post, Sudhanshu Sarronwala, Chair of Earth Hour Global, talks about his poignant and life-altering experience in Fiji, a country on the front lines of climate change.

‘Where will we live when we grow up, Dad?’

These could easily be the words of a child fleeing the horrors of war from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, emergencies we are all too well aware of.

But I heard them thousands of miles away and in a totally different context, yet one that is just as urgent. To be precise, I was at 18°S and 178°E. In Fiji. Where the leaders of the Pacific Island states were gathered together with civil society and business representatives at the Pacific Islands Development Forum to talk about growth, the future and development in the region. 

It was a life-altering moment for me – as it dawned on me that the discussions were more ‘existential’ than ‘developmental’. Existential because rising sea levels are encroaching on liveable land areas. Existential because sea water is contaminating groundwater. Existential because children are not sure whether their homes will even exist when they grow up. Hence the question – ‘Where will we live when we grow up, Dad?’- as asked of a President of an island state by his child. And as chilling as hearing it in a war zone.

Out there, in the middle of the Pacific, thousands of miles from home, I was on the front lines of climate change.

This was not about having had a really hot summer in Europe or bracing for a possibly severe winter on the Eastern seaboard. This was where the impacts of climate change were going to change lives – first and forever. And even as the leaders I met showed strength and resilience in the face of an almost certain fate, I couldn’t help but be struck by how climate change is unfair, deeply unfair. 

Countries like the Marshall Islands that contribute 0.00001% of global emissions are seeing their very existence threatened by rising sea levels due to climate change. And yet, they are aiming for a zero emission target by 2050. The Foreign Minister Tony de Brum, while throwing a challenge to the rest of the world, flatly said: ‘Our message is simple – if one of the world’s smallest, poorest and most geographically isolated countries can do it, so can you.’

Kiribati – another small island in the Pacific – has even upped the existential ante by actually purchasing land on one of Fiji’s islands to make room for its population for when their own island home goes under water. And this is not hypothetical, worst-case scenario planning – it could happen within our own lifetimes unless there is serious action to limit global temperature rise to under 1.5°C. Extrapolate this to the fact that half a billion people live in coastal plains including in 13 of the world’s mega-cities, and the reality gets even harsher. 

I left Fiji reeling from the imminent impact on the inhabitants of the island states – climate change had never felt more frightening. But I was totally unprepared for what awaited me in Sydney and Singapore.

As I landed in Sydney, the birth place of WWF’s Earth Hour, I witnessed the astonishing #coalisamazing campaign. In cruel contrast to what I had just experienced in Fiji, it was a mocking juxtaposition of the source of income – and carbon – of one country versus the impacts on another set of countries. It was a curious marketing strategy that fittingly got pilloried by the national and international media alike, leading to its withdrawal. But it was a stark reminder of the opposing forces we are up against in this existential battle, a true battle for far too many around the world. The fact that the climate sceptic leader in Australia was deposed a few days later was a fitting coincidence.

Four thousand miles away, Singapore was a city shrouded in an eerie smog, a smokey haze that burns the eyes and damages health. As cultivators and business houses ‘slashed and burnt’ tropical forests for paper and pulp industries and for palm oil plantations, the resulting smoke from the Indonesian fires blanketed parts of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia affecting the people, wildlife and air quality with devastating effect. And that was just the tangible impact. Those same burning trees were invisibly dumping masses of climate changing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

It was a triple whammy: Being on the front lines of climate change where the impact is existential, witnessing a pro-coal campaign that totally disregarded the effect on the climate, and breathing in the results of business excesses.

These experiences showed me that we are at a crucial moment in time. Seeing climate cause-and-effect over the course of a single business itinerary made me more determined than ever to be a part of the change. After all, there is no Plan B.

As the eminent conservationist and Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai said – ‘In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called upon to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a new moral ground’.

Paris is that time.

Sudhanshu Sarronwala is Chair of Earth Hour Global and Executive Director, Marketing & Communications for WWF International. He is based in Switzerland.

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